Family History Travel in Wytheville, Virginia

I caught the genealogy bug more than ten years ago, and as soon as I heard about Ancestry.com, I knew I wanted to create an account, upload the genealogy information I had and explore more about our family’s history. Over the years, I’ve discovered so many interesting stories about my ancestors and have learned that most of my family came to America in the 1600’s and early 1700’s, including some who arrived as early as 1619.

My maternal grandfather’s family, the Crowder’s, originally arrived in Virginia in the early 1600’s. After slowly migrating from Charles City County to Mecklenburg County, my grandfather’s great-grandfather and his family settled in Wytheville in the early 1800’s. As we learned from exploring census records, he partnered with his next-door neighbor to run a tailor and shoemaking shop. Today, the original building that housed his shop still stands and is a boutique and gift shop called The Farmer’s Daughter.

I had determined the location of several of my ancestors’ graves in a couple of Wytheville cemeteries, so we visited the cemeteries and located them.

On the Saturday we were in Wytheville, we decided to search for the site of a terrible event that happened to several of my ancestors, an Indian massacre. On our way, we went up Big Walker Mountain and visited the Big Walker Lookout and Store. For a small fee, we were able to walk across a suspension bridge to view an overlook, then climb to the top of a more than one hundred foot tall former fire tower. We also got to speak with a local author, Joe Tennis, who has written a number of books on the area, including books on hauntings.

 

We came down on the other side of the mountain near Sharon Springs and Ceres, locations mentioned in accounts of the Indian massacre that killed several of my ancestors. In the summer of 1774, my sixth great-grandfather, Jared Sluss, was working the land near his home. His wife, Christina, had just put their newborn baby, Mary, into a cradle and pushed it beneath a tall bed so the flies wouldn’t bother her. Ever since the European settlers had pushed into the region, various native tribes had taken exception to the treaties in place between the settlers and natives, and had carried out occasional massacres of area settlers.

On that morning in 1774, Jared Sluss had heard his neighbors warnings that marauding bands of Indians had been seen in the area. Needing to harvest his crops and work his fields, and not necessarily believing the rumors, he and his sons continued their work and didn’t even notice when a band of Shawnee or Cherokee Indians worked their way down the mountain and between Jared in the field and Christina in the house. Father and mother were both killed, as were all the children except two daughters who were in town at the time, one son who escaped the massacre to get help in the village and the baby daughter in her cradle, who was not discovered by the natives. This story is memorialized with a marker at the Lutheran church at Sharon Springs, and the graves are marked with stones from which the engravings have long since weathered away.

We also visited the Wytheville Farmer’s Market and had lunch at the Log House 1776 restaurant, both in downtown Wytheville. According to Mr. Tennis’ book on hauntings, the Log House 1776 is haunted, but it was also a great lunch spot with yummy sandwiches and a kids’ menu. For dinner, we enjoyed El Puerto Mexican restaurant. According to locals, this was the best Mexican place in town, and it did not disappoint.

We stayed at the Ramada Wytheville, which was a great choice for families. It had an outdoor pool and a delicious breakfast buffet, with affordable, clean rooms and a great staff. This was a great summer weekend getaway to explore our family history!

 

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Beach Adventure

For a fun, off-the-beaten-path adventure, my husband and I reserved a night at False Cape State Park, Virginia’s southernmost state park. This rustic park offers primitive camping on a deserted, remote beach or inland. False Cape is on the southern edge of the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and you have to hike or bike the 3.5 miles through the Refuge to get into the park. Campers need to bring in water as there is only potable water at the Visitor’s Center. You should also be aware of the various types of wildlife, including venomous snakes. Cottonmouths (also known as water moccasins) are abundant – we saw five on our hikes into and out of the park.

To get to our beachfront campsite, our full hike was about 7 miles each way. Despite the hazards and long hike, the experience of being the only ones camping on a deserted beach and watching the full moon rise from the ocean was truly unique.

Within the park, there are various hiking trails, including ones to a beachside shipwreck and an abandoned church from a small community that used to live on the land prior to the establishment of the park. There are also tram tours that depart from the Visitor’s Center of the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge if you’d rather just visit the park for the day. It’s just south of Sandbridge and miles away from the hustle and bustle of Virginia Beach.

The Spa Life in Baden-Baden, Germany

On the edge of the Black Forest just across the French border from Alsace, the spa town of Baden-Baden is a relaxing stop on a European road trip. My husband and I were headed to the tiny town of Ingolstadt to stay for a few days and visit the Audi Factory there, and we had pre-booked our spa treatments at the historic Friedrichsbad Spa, which dates from 1877 and offers a wide range of treatments, including the traditional 17-step circuit of showers, brushes and massages, baths of various temperatures and steam baths. Be sure to leave your modesty at the door, as the Friedrichsbad Spa, like many in Europe, requires full nudity. Men and women are separate for the treatments on certain days of the week, and can enjoy treatments together on other days. Check the Carasana website for a full schedule.

Since we only had a brief amount of time before getting back on the road, we didn’t do the full 17-step circuit. Instead, we each got a massage and shared a soak in the Emperor’s Bath. The massages were just what our road-tripping, tight muscles needed after sitting in a car most of each day. We got big, fluffy robes to wear between the massage area and the Emperor’s Bath, and we put our bags into a locker before entering the private room with a deep, soaking tub full of warm mineral water. Beneath a plaque of Kaiser Wilhelm, we soaked in the relaxing water, enjoying fruit juice, German wine and mineral water and some German-language magazines.

In the same historic bath area, you can also visit the Roman bath ruins, which lie beneath the main spa. Guided tours are available on some days, and self-guided tours on the remaining days. Just steps away is the newer Caracalla Spa, a large, modern European spa with outdoor and indoor pools and numerous wellness programs and treatments. From massages and body wraps to facials, couples massages and more, there are plenty of ways to treat yourself. Parking is available in an underground deck that connects to the Caracalla Spa. From there, the Friedrichsbad Spa is a short walk away.

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Summer Fun

School’s out and it’s time to explore. Living in Virginia, we’re lucky to have plenty to do in our home state – from beaches to mountains and from historic sites to theme parks to national parks. We also have Washington, DC on our doorstep, opening the door to plenty of cultural offerings. Want to do something this summer and need some ideas? Try these:

  • Napoleon: Power and Splendor exhibition, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond – This unique exhibition takes you inside the world of Napoleonic Europe, showing artifacts from Napoleon’s own daily life, as well as commissioned pieces and propaganda that helped legitimize his empire. Through Sept. 3.
  • “Body Worlds: Animals Inside and Out,” Science Museum of Virginia, Richmond – This Richmond museum offers a great day out for families. The animal exhibit teaches kids and adults alike about the biology of animals through plastination, a process that preserves blood vessels, muscular systems and more. Through Aug. 19.
  • Astronomy and Night Sky Summer Series, Chincoteague National Wildlife Reserve/NASA’s Wallop’s Island Flight Facility, Chincoteague – Space lovers can explore the night sky at this evening lecture series that begins inside and concludes outdoors with telescope viewing of the night sky. July 13.
  • Tank Museum Vehicle Run Day, American Armoured Foundation Inc. Tank and Ordnance War Memorial Museum, Danville – One one special day this summer, this military museum fires up the engines of its tanks and runs them. Inside the museum itself, a wide variety of exhibits, such as “Black Panthers, African-American Tankers of WWII” and “Elvis – His Military Years” will please any military enthusiast. July 14.
  • “Wings and Wheels,” Ingalls Field, Hot Springs – Head out to Virginia’s western highlands to take in this event packed with cars, trucks, tractors, motorcycles and airplanes. A vintage car show, air shows, rides and plenty of family fun await. July 14.

Celebrate America on July 4

Virginia is a great place to celebrate Independence Day. We have authentic Americana and historic sites galore. Here are some of the best places to visit for July 4:

  • An American Celebration, Mount Vernon – Fireworks, military re-enactments, a naturalization ceremony, birthday cake and a visit from George and Martha Washington are highlights of July 4th at this American history museum.
  • Independence Day Celebration, Yorktown – Enjoy a 5k/8k run/walk, parade, U.S. Coast Guard band, concert and fireworks.
  • Independence Day at Patrick Henry’s Red Hill, Brookneal – Featuring a speech by Virginia’s first governor, Patrick Henry, and fireworks at dusk, this is a unique, family-friendly Fourth of July celebration.
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  • Fourth at the Fort, Fort Monroe – A flag ceremony, food, live music and a fireworks display mark the Fourth at this historic fort near Hampton.
  • Independence Day at Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg – Readings of the Declaration of Independence take place throughout the day, alongside musical performances, hands-on activities for the kids and an evening fireworks display.
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  • Independence Day in Historic Port Royal, Port Royal – Special appearances by George Mason, Dolly Madison and Harriet Tubman, performances of period music from the Revolutionary and Civil War areas, pipes and drums and free surrey rides.
  • 4th of July Concert and Fireworks, Dogwood Dell, Richmond – Long-running local favorite featuring a patriotic performance by the Richmond Concert Band and a fireworks display at dusk.
  • Stars and Stripes Explosion, Virginia Beach – Enjoy live music performances throughout the day and end your evening with a bang at the massive fireworks display.

On Anthony Bourdain

There is nothing I can write about Anthony Bourdain that won’t be written far more eloquently by those far better at writing things. I never had the chance to meet him, though I would have loved to. His unique style of travel writing and documentary filmmaking was a huge inspiration in creating my blog, and in my life in general. The closest I came to meeting him was in 2014 when my husband and I attended a UFC fight in Baltimore. Anthony and his then-wife, Ottavia, walked right past us as they made their way to their seats octagon-side. “Holy shit!,” I remember saying, “That was Anthony Bourdain!” There was no fuss, no fanfare. Just a man and his wifeon a night out watching the fights.

That’s part of what made him so great. He was unpretentious, honorable and endlessly curious. He treated the Michelin-starred chef the same way he treated the Vietnamese street food cook or the Portugese grandmother – as a valuable human being, someone to learn from, to share time, space and food with. He was as impressed by West Virginia coal miners as he was by celebrity chefs. He sought out the extraordinary in the ordinary and the ordinary in the extraordinary. He had every travel junkie’s ultimate dream job, and he used his platform to tell the stories of the places he visited in a way that went far deeper than which sights and restaurants to tick off your bucket list.

I tried to travel like Bourdain, to take the extra time to connect with those I met along the way. I’m reminded of a dinner in Colmar, Alsace, ironically not far from where his life ended. It was November of 2016, and Trump had just been elected President. We’d been in Reims – Champagne country –  the day before when the news broke. Our trip plans had entailed toasting Hillary Clinton’s win with some celebratory champagne. Alas, that was not to be.

We walked through the cobbled streets of Colmar, a medieval town with timbered buildings dating from the 1400’s, looking for somewhere to eat. In the center of the old town, Le Fer Rouge is a classic Alsatien restaurant in a quaint and charming old building. My husband and I sat in the back corner and chatted about the election. Our waiter, overhearing us, asked where we were from. I said we were American, and, in broken franglais, explained how terrible it was that Trump had won the election. Over the course of our meal, we spoke with our waiter about immigration, European right-wing politics and French stereotypes of Americans. At one point, he whizzed our cardboard coasters to us with a joking shout of “for Trump!”

Our shared connection made that dinner far more memorable and meaningful than if my husband and I had sat in the corner, ordered our food and only spoken to the waiter to give our orders. Because of our waiter’s sociable personality and our willingness to share a conversation, we learned that not every French person sees the immigration issue the same way, that in small, rural, fiercely independent Alsace, there is nervousness at the prospect of their way of life changing with large influxes of people from elsewhere. After following the restaurant on Facebook – just a click away in today’s social media world of constant connectivity – I was saddened to learn of our waiter’s passing earlier this year. I thought of Anthony’s words from his book “The Nasty Bits”: “Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life – and travel – leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks – on your body or on your heart – are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”

Everyone who loves food and travel idolized Anthony Bourdain. Everyone wanted to do what he did, aspired to be half the writer, speaker and thinker that he was. He used his talents for good, to shine a light on injustice, to let neglected and overlooked communities speak for themselves. He used food and travel as tools to get to the heart of our shared humanity, one plate at a time, one road at a time, one place at a time. He seemed to always be searching for what is real, what is true – which was often beautiful, but nearly as often ugly. The tragedy of his death is that this world has lost his unique voice, and his powerful way of looking at and reflecting the world back to us. There will never be another Anthony Bourdain. My heart aches for his daughter, his family, his friends and associates and all of us whose lives he enriched and inspired. I hope that he has found peace.


If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.

 

 

Ham and peanuts in Smithfield

A while back, I discovered through genealogy research that one of my ancestors was originally from Smithfield, Virginia. When my younger son told me out of the blue one day that he wanted to “find a really good ham,” I knew Smithfield was the place to go.

We headed to Jamestown to take the free ferry across the James River to Surry, then we drove about fifteen miles to the town of Smithfield.

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When we first arrived, we were hungry and craving some ham, so we visited Taste of Smithfield, a combination restaurant and country store that serves some delicious Southern food and sells a variety of Smithfield meats, Virginia peanuts and other local food and gift items. I had the sliced ham, mashed potatoes with ham gravy and green beans with bacon and onions. The ham was divine, and the mashed potatoes were the creamiest and tastiest I’ve ever had.

After our lunch, we took a walk around town, crossing Church Street to see some beautiful old homes. We visited the Isle of Wight County Museum, where we looked up information on our ancestors and discovered that one of them, my 4th great-grandfather, was actually the first mayor of Smithfield, as well as an attorney, state delegate and U.S. representative. We explored the museum, learning about Smithfield’s history in the curing of ham and growing of peanuts.

We also visited the old Smithfield courthouse, dating from 1750. Over the years, this building has been used as a private residence, courthouse and hotel. It was restored to its 1750 footprint beginning in 1959.

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My boys wanted some ice cream, so we went to the Smithfield Ice Cream Parlor on Main Street. It was a slice of the past, with wood-paneled walls, old-fashioned milkshakes, floats and malts and delicious ice cream.

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We finished our day discovering my ancestor’s home on historic Church Street, and his grave at Historic St. Luke’s Church, Virginia’s oldest church.

It was a beautiful spring day, and my boys and I enjoyed Smithfield’s old-town charm and learning more about our family history!